– The moment I finished reading Monica A. Hand’s me and Nina, I felt an intense longing to be with Nina Simone. I went to her official website, www.ninasimone.com to listen to her music just in time to hear her sing “I was hungry and it was your world” from Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” Suddenly that line I’ve heard dozens of times had new meaning, and it got me like a punch in the belly. It’s the pain of exclusion, the toxicity of racism, in Nina Simone’s lifetime and in ours (“How it Feels to be Free”):
I go to social services
they treat me like a criminal
take my picture my fingerprints
president a black man
make no difference
This emotionally complex volume, with highly innovative forms, includes poems about Nina Simone’s life. She was a child protégée, trained as a classical pianist but as a young woman reached an impasse. A door slammed in her face. She was brilliant, accomplished, and rejected from a school where she could have pursued her dreams:
She was too dark too blue
Made us feel unsure impure
We train classical musicians
She just wasn’t
The heart of the book is Hand’s heart:
All the while my heart is open
Spilling on the streets on the train
In the grocery store on these white pages
Millions of people were stirred by Nina Simone for decades, and still are. Hand loves her, finds the door in her voice, her songs and her life and makes herself a fitful home.
Love and longing are sometimes contained on the page; sometimes flowing far beyond what can fit into a poem or even a song. The two are connected by experience as black women in America. Simone is transformed into a surrogate lover, a real muse and real angel. From “A Red Box For”:
a red box for
missing things touch
them care for them
put in what I
find save come by
Among the persona poems, “Resistance “, is in the voice of Nina Simone. In these sharply hewn lines, her activism and experience are piercing:
my weapon my voice my song arsenic
don’t expect me to be nice
I will make a scene
stir it up set
you cannot erase
or my race
Hand feels Simone’s life as if she herself is living it; as if Simone’s ghosts have leapt into her—and she makes artful poems as their hearts beat in her own body.
Hand explores, feels and imagines every which way, extending to language itself. “Jim Crow” is an astonishing feat. It begins:
I will not cow
I will not row
my boat out to meet you
I will not crow
The “dear Nina” poems complete a cycle—music has to be heard, poetry has to be heard and read. Nina and Monica are one. The self, however pure and deep its song, has to have a variant, a fallen angel or restless spirit whose rage doesn’t dissipate, not yet in America. To hold up a mirror, and sometimes torment.
As music fills us, it also releases powerful emotional need. Monica Hand in me and Nina (now in its second printing) transforms absence and longing into art. It’s grown roots.
me and Nina by Monica A. Hand
Alice James Books
78 pages $15.95
Ellen Miller-Mack is a poet and nurse practitioner. For many years she hosted a radio show called “Blame it on the Blues” on WMUA in Amherst, Massachusetts, specializing in the blues women from the 1920’s on up.